As part of the spate of baseball books that hit shelves this year, Chris Donnelly’s Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History arrived in my mailbox last week, and I launched into it last night. The book, which I’ll review when I’m through with it, takes place in a different era than the one we know today. Some of the names — Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey — still resonate in the game in 2010, but in 1995, the game had reached a nadir.
For months, there was no baseball. It is almost inconceivable now to imagine that the owners and players would be at such loggerheads as to allow a strike to happen, but as the owners pushed for a salary cap and the players resisted, baseball ended on August 12, 1994. I was 11 and devastated. That Yankee team was the best of my early fandom years, and when the World Series was canceled, the team and its fans were heartbroken.
As the days ticked on, the owners and players remained at a stalemate, and teams could not afford to sacrifice the season. Enter the replacement players. In an effort to field any sort of baseball team, the owners began the hunt for non-union players who would be willing to cross picket lines for a professional baseball paycheck or a dream fulfilled. As February neared, teams refused to unveil their assembled rosters of replacement players.
The first conflict to come up arose with the managers and coaches. These men were not players union members and were employees of their owners. Fiercely loyal to their players, as Buck Showalter explained, the on-field coaching staff members had to decide between their boss and their players. Most of them reluctantly went to Spring Training, hoping for a quick end to the strike. On the eve of Spring Training, Showalter did not have high hopes for his rag-tag bunch of players.
So who were these guys better suited to softball leagues than Spring Training fields, resembling the Bad News Bears more than the first-place Yankees? Well, for starters, one man who wasn’t there and opting against going stands out. As Jack Curry detailed, 20-year-old Derek Jeter, then the Yanks’ top prospect, refused to join the replacement players. For many minor leaguers not part of the union yet, the invitation to a Big League camp would prove alluring simply because many knew 1995 would be their best and only shot at breaking camp with a big league club.
“I wouldn’t go no matter what,” Jeter said to The Times. “Easy question, easy answer. If someone is out there striking for me, it would be like stabbing them in the back if I played. I wouldn’t do that.”
For those who went to camp, their only shots at fame came as replacement players, and the names are indeed forgettable. Joe Ausenio, a pitcher I once saw in the early 1990s in Oneonta, didn’t go, but his roommate Mark Carper showed up to camp. Showalter said those two would never have even been in consideration for the team a year before. Doug Cinnella, currently a Reds scout, was 30 and had bounced around the minors, playing for the Orioles, Expos and Mets before arriving in camp in 1995.
The other names sound even less familiar. John DiGirolamo dropped a pop up and couldn’t get a good swing off of Nelson Perpetuo in an intra-squad match up. Tim Byron was a teacher who had not pitched professionally since 1986. Scott Epps, a bad Yankee farmhand, summed up the replacement mentality. “I don’t think they see me as a prospect,” he said 15 years ago. “For that reason, I have to do what is best for me. Right now, this is an outstanding opportunity.”
When the games started, the results were ugly. Few fans showed up, and the quality of play was abysmal. Players — such as 250-pound Matt Stark, out of baseball since 1990, who crushed a metal folding chair when he sat down — made headlines for the wrong reasons, and as March wore on the players and owners had to find a solution. It took an injunction against the owners to get the players back on the field, but it was just in the nick of a time. A replacement season would have been even worse.
Today, the replacement players have largely faded from memory. A few — Kevin Millar, Ron Mahay, Shane Spencer — eventually reached the majors, but most faded from baseball’s history books. Those replacement players were denied union membership and were tarred with the feathers of the strike. It is a moment baseball would be wise to avoid repeating again.